Honesty goes a long way

It’s been said part of the hostility between the SNP and Scottish Labour can be characterised as the narcissism of small difference. At the time of writing, the Scottish Government has just published its Draft Budget for 2016. Despite rows over its contents likely to dominate the next few weeks in the Scottish Parliament, the reality is that much of what the budget provides for is undisputed between the government and the major party of opposition. Indeed, since 1999, it has always been thus.

This Scottish Budget is, however, a pre-election budget and in its contents and omissions we see some of the potential dividing lines of the upcoming elections to the fifth Scottish Parliament. Asked to contemplate ‘my asks’ for the SNP’s next manifesto, a number of thoughts come to mind. Not least the importance of manifestos themselves and the likely degrees of difference between Labour’s and that of the SNP. Well-advertised manifesto commitments can take on the status of solemn promises; unbreakable pacts with the people regardless of later policy consequences: recall maintaining 1,000 extra police officers or the council tax freeze. Alternatively, they can find themselves abandoned quickly and without ceremony: the local income tax, the homebuyers grant, writing off student debt are just a few examples of the less binding kind of SNP manifesto commitment.

So whilst manifestos contain specifics both to be championed, at least until the next election, or abandoned at the first sign of trouble, they are also, at their best, visions of our future and should help the voter to understand where a party and its candidates are coming from and rational reasons as to why we should place our crosses beside their names.

There will, no doubt, be polices contained in the SNP manifesto that I will celebrate, just as there will be ideas in my own party’s to which I might be less enthusiastic. ‘Carry a knife – go to jail’ is an example from last time that I was glad enough to see fall by the wayside. Support for a single national police service was another that it became impossible to backtrack from despite the mounting evidence that it would not work in the manner first envisaged.

In May last year, the big issue, or at least so we were told, was austerity and Scotland’s two big parties allegedly conflicting attitudes towards it. This May, the backdrop of austerity will loom large over the election, particularly the swingeing cuts which a Scottish Government intends to inflict upon Scottish local government. If the SNP choses to highlight its opposition to austerity in its Scottish manifesto, then I would have three asks of them. By all means lament the choices made by Westminster but stop pretending the approach of Scottish Ministers is not also a choice. Be brave, and defend why you have chosen to protect budgets for acute hospital care whilst still continuing the attack on the social care provision – the very care which prevents people ending up on the ward, and eases the return home.

Second of all, recognise cuts to local government result in local austerity. Low paid women workers bear the brunt of this, as do those most reliant upon council services. The cynicism of the current attitude does nothing to honour the best elements of the 2014 referendum, when many of our citizens became engaged because they believed their vote could make a difference and saw politics as the mechanism to change our society. Honesty might not always have been the hallmark of that campaign but it can still go a long way in fostering a more informed debate, which trusts people to understand the choices in front of them.

Third, let’s talk about tax. Tax is the basis of our social solidarity; it allows us to provide for what are at heart some of the most basic civilising forces in our society. It can help to balance differentiating levels of power, but it is also the most easily misrepresented tool of government. So, let’s stop pretending that the Scottish Rate of Income Tax, at least part-reformed in time for this May’s election, is only a flat rate power. It isn’t. Its variability may be in lock-step but it is also a power built on top of, an imperfect, but still ultimately progressive tax system. Only in Scotland could a party have proposed the ‘Penny for Scotland’ in the good times, and then when austerity is laying waste to our public services, the very same individuals angrily dismiss it as an unusable measure. So use it, don’t use it, but be prepared to set out real arguments on why that choice has been made rather than relying upon the straw men of nationalism.

Post-Smith, the tax powers vary again, and from then it will be possible to vary rates differentially. This is a good thing. If you believe that, as a matter of fairness, the highest rate should not have been reduced from 50p to 45p, then make clear that it will be put back, put it in your manifesto and make clear that the next budget will be set for the long-term, not just for an election.

As an MSP since 2011, I have been struck more than anything else by how little time Scottish politics spends talking, or thinking, about jobs. So if town hall austerity is to be continued, spell out how workers will be protected from its consequences. I am currently a member of the Scottish Government’s taskforce on the steel industry which is rightly concerned with the hundreds of jobs at risk. Yet, cuts to councils have and will result in potentially tens of thousands losing their livelihood. Why not take up UNISON’s suggestion of taskforces for those people?

Similarly, Scottish Labour and SNP manifestos will reflect shared opposition to Trident renewal. So let’s move beyond the rhetoric and actually see preparation and action on defence industry diversification. That requires a lead from government, not just a slogan. The Scottish Government used to claim that 16,000 jobs could be created in renewables, a target that has since been dropped apparently without a replacement. So let’s see a joined up industrial strategy debated; and a real commitment to manufacturing as a provider of good quality jobs, decent wages and community stability, rather than only another simplistic splurge on the so-called Small Business Bonus, a policy that has already cost £1billion with no audit of its job creating impact.

On the environment, the road to sustainability cannot be a runway to a slashing Air Passenger Duty, at the expense of a quarter of a billion pounds to the public purse. Why not spend that money instead on real efforts to improve educational attainment and training the workers of tomorrow for a chance at a better working life. For those working in the care industry today, why not commit to the living wage that the councils who procure services and providers of them both claim to want. Go further and embed that approach, not just with certificates for living wage employers, but by bringing together purchasers, providers and employees within a meaningful collective bargaining framework which sees the role of government not just as a supporter of fair work, but as an enabler of it.

Finally, in the First Minister’s Jimmy Reid lecture she rightly described workers’ rights as human rights. Let’s see that put into action with serious action against the blacklisting contractors, who are still benefiting from public projects. The Trade Union Bill is not just an illiberal and ideological attack on the rights of working people to organise, it is also a dog’s breakfast of a law which can be made unworkable. So, follow the lead of local authorities and let’s make clear that both Scottish Labour and SNP, manifestos will represent a mandate for concerted and united resistance to the implementation of draconian policy.

If it is true that last year’s General Election manifestos from Labour and the SNP amounted to small difference, and if many Labour voices were right that the SNP has had a habit of simply copying many of Labour’s policies, then the inclusion of some of the above would, in my view, be very welcome indeed. Imitation will remain the sincerest form of flattery.

Drew Smith is Labour MSP for Glasgow, Chair of the Trades Union Group of Labour MSPs and former Shadow Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, writing here in a personal capacity.